Thursday, May 14, 2009

Racism, Eggs and Visualization

One of my favorite books is The Logic of Life: A Rational Economics in an Irrational World by Tim Harford. Not only do I like the style of economics in the book, but I admire the way Tim Harford writes. I think that Harford communicates the findings of economics beautifully. For anyone who appreciates good logic and clear exposition, I highly recommend anything produced by Tim Harford: speeches, books, blog writings, etc. Harford just exudes an ideal outlook on life and that shines through in his writing.

He has now started producing video shorts. These video shorts are a wonderful way to get the ideas of economics out into public discourse. They're all posted on his webpage at http://timharford.com.

My favorite video short describes Thomas Schelling's model of racial segregation. Of course, I think the model is interesting, but what I find most interesting is the difference in exposition. To see what I mean, let's give it a try. Imagine you have a chessboard in front of you. Read the following description of how extreme racial segregation can occur even if each member of society has only a mild preference for his own race:
Lay out alternating black and white pieces, remove any twenty, and then add five just to mix things up a bit. The board now represents a mixed neighborhood.

Now, these black pieces aren't extreme racists. They're happy to live in a mixed neighborhood, but they don't want their white neighbors to outnumber their black neighbors more than 2 to 1. The white pieces feel exactly the same way. So, take any piece that is outnumbered by more than 2 to 1 and move it to the closet acceptable location.

When you do this, you'll find something astonishing. The black pieces and white pieces will separate out like oil and vinegar. Even a mild preference for the color of your neighbor can lead to extreme segregation.

When you're done, watch the video (here). Now, that's a cool video, don't you think?

It is striking how well the video conveys Schelling's chessboard experiment. Some ideas just have to be seen to be understood.

1 comment:

  1. Jim RC gave a talk a couple of years ago about some research he did in this area... He developed a cool animation that showed these types of trends in Urban areas over time (with the ability to adjust the neighbor type 'preference' variable). He also did a similar one with female advancement in corporate America. R can do cool stuff :)

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